Anxiety is an adaptive mechanism for humans. Anxiety helps people to show up on time for work, to manage their tasks, to be organized, and to care for others. After all, thinking about something over and over can cause our minds to remember what is important in our lives. However, anxiety that becomes consuming turns into fear. It can grow to interfere with the enjoyment of relationships, keep one from being present in the moment and enjoying life, and it can prevent relaxation and rest. Additionally, it can hinder personal efficacy by keeping people focused on fears of what might happen, when that time could be utilized enjoying life more, resting or sleeping, working toward furthering a goal, or spending time investing in something meaningful. It is when this impairment occurs, that we begin to pause and re-examine anxiety…as a problem.
Children are anxious for all kinds of reasons. Here, you will see common expressions that children use to say they are anxious. In and of themselves, these feelings can be normal and children can learn to tackle these worries and be just fine. However, when the anxiety grows to interfere in everyday life, then it becomes something that parents should consider more deeply. In parentheses, you will see how we classify these anxious thoughts when they escalate and cause impairment.
- “Bad things may happen” or “I am really scared of the news” or “I always think a tornado may come” (generalized anxiety)
- “Bad things have happened before” or “I can’t stop thinking about stuff that has already happened and things I said or did” (generalized anxiety)
- “I lie awake thinking about things at night, rehashing my day, and thinking of what I have to do tomorrow” (generalized anxiety, overthinking patterns)
- “Something bad may happen to mom or dad or to me if I am not with them” (separation anxiety)
- “I am afraid of not making friends at school or kids being mean and not including me” (social anxiety)
- “I am afraid of new situations or new people” (social anxiety)
- “I am worried that my teacher will call on me or I may have to read or speak out loud” (social anxiety, performance anxiety)
- “I am worried about what other people will think about me or say about me” (social anxiety)
- “I am worried about how I’ll do with grades” (performance anxiety)
- “I am afraid I may not be able to breathe or that I’ll feel dizzy or my heart will race” (panic disorder)
- “I always feel afraid to sleep alone” (separation anxiety)
- “I worry I will disappoint myself or my parents” (performance anxiety, generalized anxiety)
- “I worry I will be a failure” (performance anxiety, generalized anxiety)
- “I worry that I am no good”(performance anxiety, generalized anxiety)
Some children will not only have these anxious thoughts, but their behavior changes because of the thought. Some children will become shy, avoidant, reluctant, or enjoy things less than they would otherwise. Some are likely to stay awake later thinking and overthinking, have changes in appetite, or find maladaptive ways to self-soothe. Others may become critical of themselves. School and extracurricular activities become more about performance than about enjoyment.
Chronic anxious thoughts can lead to depression and irritability. Some children become argumentative with their parents because of not knowing why they feel the way they do all the time. Others tend toward isolation and screen time and not wanting to be engaged with others.
So, how can you help if your child has crossed the bridge from normal worries to impairing anxiety?
1.Talk to your child’s doctor.
There are amazing ways to help children who struggle with anxiety. Many children do well with therapy (individual and family). Others benefit from therapy and the addition of certain vitamins, minerals, or medication management. Don’t hesitate to have your child seen by his or her pediatrician, or to seek a referral to a child psychiatrist or psychologist.
2. Be your child’s sounding board.
Spend time together daily one on one. Be present for your child to express feelings to. Make a habit of spending time together and processing the day, and then do something relaxing together. Bring your teen a cup of warm tea at night and talk about how the day went. Turn on a relaxing show and spend time decompressing. If your little one gets anxious at bedtime, cuddle up and read a good book together.
3. Be present with your child and go into new situations together when possible.
Merely being present and being calm builds your child’s feelings of security and wellness when all else is unfamiliar. She will worry less when you are nearby.
4. When your child falls down, don’t add to the perceived crisis with your reaction.
Stay calm, validate your child’s feelings, be positive, and then move on. Don’t focus on the fall. I mean that as a metaphor for physical and emotional injury.
If your child comes home and always talks about kids who are mean at school- listen, reassure, and then redirect her focus to something more positive. When you’ve had some time together, reflect on the day and help her remember positive things about her day. You can say things like, “I know Susie wasn’t nice to you in gym class today. It does sound like you had a great time talking to Anna and you both like the same things. And, it sounds like playing ball at recess was fun!”
5. Redirection is healthy no matter the age.
Learning to redirect anxiety is a skill that every child should have. Teach your child to redirect herself when she is anxious or her thoughts are “stuck” on something. It is easier than you might think.
Ever had a tough day and you rehash it in your mind, then flip on the tv or take a walk to get your mind off it? Ever call a friend or get a bite to eat to feel better? Redirection is powerful. It can stop worry in its’ tracks. If your child’s thoughts are stuck, take a drive, go somewhere fun, grab a snack, head to a playground, call a family member or friend and let them talk to her, watch a fun tv show, play a game, or make something! It is healthy to learn that we can have the power to stop anxious thoughts and focus on things that make us feel better.
6. Notice bravery.
When your child tries a new activity, talks to someone new, eats a new food, or has the courage to perform in front of others, praise her bravery for trying. Most parents praise performance. Instead, praise the courage that it took for her to even try! Many situations will arise in your child’s life when her performance isn’t what she expected. Your child should learn instead to take pride in her efforts.
7. Be specific in praise, and offer it without condition.
Minimizing anxiety means also building confidence. Help your child to grow more self-confident by being specific in your praise. Instead of saying, “Great job at swim practice today!”, try saying “You made it across that pool in record time!” Specific praise tells your child that you watched and noticed- it makes the praise more meaningful.
8. Introduce solutions to problems that seem unsolvable.
If your child worries about things like weather or what could possibly go wrong in a situation, entertain her worry and then offer practical solutions. For instance, living in the southeast, I often see children who are worried about hurricane evacuations. Rather than say “No, that won’t happen”, I tell parents to say things like, “Yes, when hurricanes come, we get to find out in advance and we can leave town on a little vacation, go see grandma, and stay with her for a few days until the storm passes.”
Children need to see resolutions to problems in advance. They need to know the answers to the “what if?” questions that go through their minds. Honesty is better, and honesty with fun and creative solutions is best.
9. Introduce the people who are making the differences in the world’s bigger problems.
Many parents tend to hide the news from their children. Children’s anxiety is reduced when they feel empowered to find solutions to the things that worry them. There is a wonderful website called “The Good News Network” that offers news about people of all ages engaged in acts of kindness. Your anxious child may watch or read positive news like this and end up wildly inspired!
10. If sleeping alone causes your child a lot of anxiety, give some thought to co-sleeping.
Children and parents often sleep better when they are close in physical proximity. There is nothing wrong, and a lot right, about sleeping next to your child. Often, it not only will provide your child with a deeper sleep, but it will lead to lower anxiety levels the next day when your child heads to school.
Many parents worry that if they co-sleep with their child, the child won’t grow out of it. Research shows us that this is not true at all. Children naturally will want to sleep on their own when they are emotionally ready. If your child is older, co-sleeping may look like putting a mattress on the floor in your bedroom for a couple months. If she is younger, it is fine to make room right next to you. You might find you sleep far better knowing she is fast asleep in the same room.
11. Teach your child how to engage in deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery!
These are wonderful therapeutic tools that teach children how to calm their bodies and minds when they feel stressed. See my post on this topic.
12. Help your child to learn the power of prayer.
Leading your child through prayer when she feels anxious is a very powerful intervention. Children need to know that God knows their anxious thoughts! They need to feel comfortable sharing and telling God whatever is on their hearts, knowing that God listens and cares, and that He watches over us.
“7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”- 1 Peter 5:7 NIV